Readers Respond on the Question of Poverty in the U.S.

BY Judy Woodruff  September 22, 2011 at 11:20 AM EDT

My blog post last week raised questions about whether most journalists understand what life is like for the tens of millions of Americans who are living in poverty. It provoked quite a few comments.

I had started thinking about this after a new Census Bureau report disclosed 46 million Americans are living at or below the poverty line, of $11,139 a year for a single person, $22,314 a year for a family of four. This was the largest number of people in poverty since 1993. My back-of-the-envelope calculation came out to around $200 per week for those at the better end of this category, and obviously less for those doing even worse.

  • What surprised me is that many comments had to do with whether those living in poverty really have it so bad after all. One reader, Paula, cited a paper sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, using other government studies that it says show most of the people who are defined as in poverty “are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term.” She quoted from the conservative think tank’s report, which stated “[T]he typical poor household … had air conditioning and a car … two color televisions, cable or satellite TV, a DVD player, and a VCR. In the kitchen, it had a refrigerator, an oven and stove, and a microwave.” The source cited is a 2005 U.S. Department of Energy household survey of “Residential Energy Consumption.”

  • But at least one other reader, identified as “student,” commented: “For the past twelve months I have lived using food stamps, section eight housing and liheap [low income heating assistance] covering my living expenses. I have no car … I also watch broadcast TV, do not have a landline phone and tether my cell phone to my desktop for internet use. I have no washer dryer or dishwasher. Last time I saw a dr it was … when I had bronchitis two years ago.”

  • Still another, “Hope Less,” wrote: “I’m in the top ten percent in the world education-wise. Four years ago I had a 401K with over a million dollars in it … Now, everything is gone and I can’t find a job to save my soul … If I was alone I’d give up, but I still have one young child at home. How will I keep a roof over her head and food on the table? I have no idea.”

  • But there was little sympathy from other quarters: “Jonathan” wrote: “you need to move where the work is – take your child with you – big deal. stop wallowing in self pity and get busy. move to north dakota – they cant find enough workers in Williston Basin to spport [sic] the oil boom.”

  • And still another reader: “Duke” writes of the University of Mississippi student I mentioned: “I scraped by trying to make ends meet as a graduate student” at Ole Miss 20 years ago – I didn’t call myself “in poverty” – I called myself “a college student.” Get serious, Judy and stop trying to distract us from all the wars overseas and our government’s assaults on our own freedoms.”

A reminder of just how diverse our thinking is in this country.